Dinner Time is Family Time
Published in Asbury Park Press January 2004

“Dinner is ready! Come get it, everyone!” my husband yelled.

As I emerged from the bedroom out of my business suit, the medley of food aroma filled the room. The colorful antipasto, the garlic bread and the tortellini in Alfredo sauce made my stomach growl.

“Sorry for being late. The commute to Manhattan is wearing me out,” I said.

“Some pregnant woman fainted on the train again?” he asked, recalling the day before’s story.

“Boring replay? No way,” I said. “This evening a man ran for the train at Penn Station. He raised his arm to stop the shutting door and ended up hitting the conductor on his head with the rolled up newspaper. The police had to be called in to break up the fistfight.”

As I spoke, my husband and his two visiting children filled up their plates with food and walked to the sofa in front of the television. My 7-year-old son followed. The loud music from “Entertainment Tonight” echoed off the walls of the family room.

“Why can’t we eat dinner at the table, instead of in front of the television?” I asked.

“Didn’t we do that yesterday? Only The Waltons do that everyday,” my husband said.

The children laughed; their way of showing support for the man of the house.

Growing up, I was accustomed to eating with a houseful of people. Now I felt deprived. Silent, I carried a pot of jasmine tea out to the front yard and sat down, sipping the tea. Mr. Wood from next door was walking his puppy, his Marlboro hanging out the corner of his mouth, a white cloud puffed out in front of his face. I stared into the smoke. It brought me back to the noise-filled kitchen in my childhood days in Hong Kong.

I was 8 eight years old, and getting dinner ready every evening was like a folkdance show rehearsal - a sight of collaboration. My father worked the second-shift at his job to earn the extra wage differential, so he only had dinner with us once a week on his day off. My mother got home around 7 in the evening from her sewing job in the factory.

Without a refrigerator in our home, my mother bought fresh produce and fish from the market every day. She briefly greeted her mother, my older brothers and me, and she kissed my two younger brothers, then 5 and 2 years of age. She peeled off her work clothes, freshened up and appeared in the kitchen in minutes.

My grandmother left the cooked rice on the stove to keep warm in low heat. The large old rectangle table was set neatly with eight pairs of chopsticks and eight rice bowls. My father, when present, my uncle, and the older children sat along the splintered side of the table. The rest of us, including the baby in his high chair, sat on the other sides.

My mother looked pretty in her homemade Chinese-style cotton pantsuit. Her darted top hugged her round breasts and her tiny waist like a pair of fitted gloves. She put on her chef’s apron, and bellowed to my older siblings like a sergeant in the military: “Cut the bok-choy! Clean the snow peas! Peel the ginger! Heat the oil to pan-fry the bean curds!”

Dinner was always a two-hour event comprised of three entrees and one soup, with plentiful fish and vegetables. Our conversations about my mother’s day at work, our day at school, our homework assignments, the gossips in the neighborhood, my oldest brother’s mischief and my baby brother’s toilet-training progress continued through the cleaning up of the table. We felt interconnected; each of us belonged as part of a circle.

My husband’s voice brought me back from my walk down memory lane, “A penny for your thoughts? May I join you?” He rubbed my tense back with one hand, and held his tall beer mug in the other.

“I am thinking how dinner time was different from my childhood,” I said.

He sensed what triggered my reflection. “I’m sorry about not eating at the table. I’m how my mother reared me. Be patient with me. This old dog can still learn new tricks.”   He pulled his earlobes back and forth, the same way my parents made me do whenever I did something wrong in my youth. It’d been years since I felt the ache in my earlobes. How wonderful that he remembered the stories I told him! I reached to hold his hand.

We laughed, leaning close to each other.

“I can’t recall that we ever had a meal in front of a television,” I said.

“Not having a television in your home might have something to do with it.”

“True. But the dinner table is a great place to share good food and good conversations, and to bond as a family. Agree?”

“Yes. I am profoundly sorry for all my shortcomings,” said he, a natural comedian.

“Remember, my son will become the product of our nurturing. Perhaps it’s not too late for your two kids to change either.”

He raised his mug and bowed. “Let’s drink to good food, good jasmine, good changes and great Guinness.”